La isla dentro de la isla
By Frank Báez
This action could recall the challenges of a reality cooking show, where the chef interviews five strangers, conceives five recipes inspired by their personalities and prepares them the next day in their respective homes. But there is a detail that makes this take on another dimension: the people selected are elderly, were born in Haiti, and live in two of the poorest bateys1 in the Dominican Republic.
Taking these details into account, this action, entitled “Isla dentro de la isla” (Island within the island) and carried out by Dominican artist Karmadavis, is then transformed into a political act, an anthropological document, and an aesthetic work. To put it in a word, it becomes a “dialogue”. The dialogue established with food is one step beyond of what can be done with words. Octavio Paz, who had high regard for gastronomy, considered that the best way to get closer to a place was through food. Karmadavis uses this idea to pay tribute to one of the fundamental characteristics of humanity: migration.
Of course, in Karmadavis’s work, this proposal is not new. In addition to being one of our most recognized performers, Karmadavis is a chef or culinary artist (as he likes to define himself) and has carried out a series of actions around food. In fact, there is a previous action that we could consider the precedent of this one: “Comedor familiar” (Family dining room), which consisted of a kitchen that he installed on our border and where he prepared food for a family composed of a Dominican, a Haitian and their son. Also in other actions and performances, such as “Isla Cerrada” (Closed Island), “Isla abierta” (Open Island), “Trata” (Trafficking), “Simétrico” (Symmetric), “Al tramo izquierdo” (On the left path) and “Estructura completa” (Complete structure), he has addressed the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, using some portentous metaphors that bring a renewed vision to the study of our relationships. However, in “Isla dentro de la isla“, the action wants to highlight both the general aspects and the individualities of the chosen people and at the same time record this dialogue through recipes, and above all, celebrate diversity, imagination, and life.
For “Isla dentro de la isla”, Karmadavis chose the following five people: Timepuiz Emilis, Selafawa Liven, Tiapoun Pwemie, Osmena René and Jean Clodo Si Louis. He chose them because they met three pre-requisites: they’re over 65 years old, born in Haití, came to the Dominican Republic to work and live in Batey Cinco or in Batey Cuchilla. The three men chosen worked years ago as labourers in the Central Sugar Consortium (CAC) and the two women continue to work as housewives.
On September 21, 2018, Karmadavis visits the houses of the aforementioned with the following questionnaire:
- What was your favorite dish in Haiti?
- Could you tell a childhood anecdote related to food?
- What is your favorite fruit?
- What year did you arrive in the Dominican Republic?
In addition to avoiding digressions and concentrating the answers on the culinary, the questions help to activate playful memories linked to the flavors of childhood. As the questions are translated into Creole by a Batey Cuchilla resident, a relaxed atmosphere is achieved and the people interviewed express themselves freely and fluently in their mother tongue. To each response, to each gesture, and each comment, Karmadavis makes notes and drawings in a notebook. After asking the third question, he looks the interviewee in the eye, takes the individual’s right hand, and holds it for two minutes. The intention, according to the artist, is to measure his or her energy. This has a powerful meaning since his interlocutors are people who have worked under the harsh conditions of the sugar mills, who have lived in extreme poverty, and who in some cases have rough, worn hands and even missing fingers.
From these encounters, Karmadavis devises five recipes that he baptizes with the five names of the people interviewed. However, these recipes can be modified, depending on the availability of ingredients and the preparation process. The final recipes are as follows:
Red snapper with cinnamon, mangú2, avocado, and sunflower seeds.
Corn and black bean sauce with coconut.
Grilled chicken with guava and orange sauce.
Chopped corn with coconut, black taro, and parsley.
Pork with passion fruit and grapes.
Buttered apple with fennel.
Sautéed baby corn.
Red snapper with cherry and sautéed vegetables.
Roasted corn and fried sweet potato.
Jean Clodo Si Louis
Chicken in basil with grilled pineapple.
Roasted corn and herring gastrique.
On September 22, 2018, Karmadavis carries out this action. Early in the morning, he heads to the Neiba market. The mention of “a market” leads one to think of an enclosure and stalls, when in reality it is a group of vendors who bring their products and sell them on tarps in the streets. The idea of coming to this market is to buy fresh products from the region. Unsurprisingly, Karmadavis fails to come up with some of the required ingredients, so he has to improvise and get creative to make up for those absences.
At ten he arrives at Batey Cinco and begins to prepare everything. Despite the precariousness and shortcomings, the residents help Karmadavis whenever he needs a utensil or an ingredient.
At eleven o’clock, dressed in the chef’s attire that he usually wears in his Guatemalan restaurant, and carrying a portable stove, he enters the first home, that of Timepuiz Emilis, a 75-year-old man with a friendly face, who says he acquired the house shortly after Hurricane George in 1998. As in this house the kitchen is on the patio, he works outdoors, near Timepuiz, who, sitting on a plastic chair, scares away the dogs and pigs so that the ingredients are not stolen. In a few minutes the food is ready and Karmadavis decorates it as if he were in the kitchen of a chic restaurant. The culinary experience that our artist wants to convey is that of a high-class restaurant, and he does not want to spare any effort or resources to achieve it.
When Timepuiz sits down in the dining room, Karmadavis comes in with the plate, places it on the table, and wishes the old man Bon Appétit. Before eating, he utters a few words in Creole. From time to time his wife asks him questions, to which Timepuiz does not respond, concentrating on his plate, which he devours in less than four minutes.
Three houses from Timepuiz Emilis lives Selafwa Liven, who, unlike the first, is sparse and reserved. Karmadavis, who has already moved all the products and utensils from Timepuis’ house to Selafwa’s, settles in the latter’s kitchen and begins to work while a group of children hang from a window to follow the action. Selafwa’s wife disappeared immediately as he began cooking the food. She doesn’t even come out of the other room when Karmadavis places Selafwa’s plate on the table. He draws attention to the taro puree in small spheres and as it is smeared with squid ink it has a blackish color. The only thing Selafwa leaves on the plate are these spheres, and when asked why, he comments that their shape and color reminded him of pieces of coal.
The third person interviewed who lives in Batey Cinco is Tiapoun Pwemie. As Karmadavis takes over her kitchen, she sits on the driveway waiting for the plate. The eyes of a young Thalía protruding from a poster hanging in the middle of the room seem to follow the ups and downs of Karmadavis. Around the room are bags of cement that will be used for the park that is under construction and that Tiapoun has in good faith kept in her home.
When the plate is ready, Tiapoun says thanks and sits down in the dining room to eat it. But before doing so, she asks Karmadavis in Spanish if she can share it with her grandson. He responds in the affirmative, saying that it is her food and she can do whatever she wants. After a while, Tiapoun’s grandson, who is called Frailin and who is about thirteen years old, is sitting in the dining room, sharing the plate with his grandmother. As there is hardly a set of cutlery that Karmadavis bought in a ditch in the Neyba market, every time one of them takes a bite, he passes the fork to the other. Following this exchange, one notices that Tiapoun is missing a finger on her right hand.
Osmena René and Jean Clodo Si Louis live in Batey Cuchilla, four kilometers away from Batey Cinco. Although you can see the same poverty as in Batey Cinco, there is less dust and more trees. Just like he did with Timepuiz, Karmadavis goes back to cooking outdoors.
He first does it at Osmena René, who has a bower, where in the future she hopes to build a kitchen. The neighbors and some goats, a donkey and a yellow dog, observe Karmadavis who moves as if he were in a silent movie from the twenties. He sometimes seems to be the only thing that moves in the entire batey where not even a current of air runs to disturb the vegetation. At one point, Osmena disappears but returns after a while carrying plastic chairs so that the visitors can sit down.
This meal that contains red snapper with cherry takes much longer than the previous ones. When he has it ready, Karmadavis approaches with the plate and hands it to Osmena who is sitting in the center of the bower. Unlike the other three who ate at a table, she sits on a chair, with the plate between her legs. Halfway through the meal, her daughter Guelina approaches, as well as a little girl about four years old. Without asking Karmadavis for permission, Osmena shares her food with both of them. She even throws an ear of corn to her yellow dog.
The house of Jean Clodo Si Louis is just after a canal where some children bathe. When Karmadavis arrives he finds him sitting on a plastic chair, by the side of the dusty road. Without wasting a second, Karmadavis begins to toil from one side to the other, without eating a bite and drinking from a coconut that Timepuiz had knocked down, cut with his machete, and gave to our artist in return for his delicious dish. Jean Clodo Si Louis is in a good mood and can’t stop smiling. When Karmadavis interviewed him, he realized that he was a happy person and he confirmed this by commenting that his favorite fruit was pineapple. This led to our artist preparing his dish inside a pineapple that amazes not only Jean Clodo, but also a dozen children who are aware of everything.
Finally, the food is ready and Jean Clodo begins to eat it, surrounded by the children and his wife. Unlike the women and like the other men, Jean Clodo Si Louis does not share his food. When he takes the last bite and with a mischievous grin announces that it was delicious, Karmadavis realizes that he has reached the end of his action, takes a seat in a corner, and wipes the sweat from his face with a napkin.
Why perform this action? Why travel to one of the most deprived regions of the Dominican Republic to prepare meals for five strangers? These questions can be answered with another question: Why not? It seems to me that the central motivation for Karmadavis to carry out this action is the search for a new form of dialogue with others. And he has found it. And because he has done it in such a beautiful and artistic way, we can emulate and continue this dialogue. In fact, we have a concrete possibility of perpetuating it: preparing the recipes in our homes and sharing them with our families. In this way, we can celebrate the lives of Timepuiz Emilis, Selafawa Liven, Tiapoun Pwemie, Osmena René, and Jean Clodo Si Louis, and continue this dialogue that Karmadavis started as an act of love and solidarity with these Dominican-Haitian workers.
Island within the island
Dominican Republic, 2018.
- A Batey is a settlement around a sugar mill.
They can be found in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
- Mashed plantains.